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Writing the Shadow Work Book, Part Two: A Box, Not a Bag

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December 2007, by Alyce Barry
Part One
Part Three

In Writing the Shadow Work Book, Part One: Storytelling, I explained how my new book about Shadow Work®, Practically Shameless, became a personal story rather than a traditional nonfiction book.

Since Shadow Work®'s creation in the early 1990s, its founders and most of its facilitators have explained the concept of the human shadow using Robert Bly's metaphor of the "shadow bag."

In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, first published in 1988, Bly described the shadow as the bag we carry over one shoulder. Into that bag we throw the parts of ourselves that we must hide from the world. As the bag fills with our denied and repressed selves, it becomes a heavy burden that keeps us from moving forward.


I had already been at work on the book for several years when I first asked an editor, David Hicks, to read the manuscript and tell me what he thought.

At that point, the manuscript told the story of a six-year-old girl named Grace who brought home from school a paper with a gold star. When she happily shone for her family, they shamed and ridiculed her, and she put her "shining" self into shadow. Following Grace's story came a traditional nonfiction explanation of the four archetypes on which the Shadow Work® Model is based, in their healthy and shadow manifestations.

David liked Grace; he even felt emotionally touched by her story. But he didn't grasp how her story was connected to the archetypes. He suggested that I find an image or metaphor of some kind to explain what was happening for her in a visual way, and then continue using that metaphor to discuss the archetypes.

The metaphor that lay ready-to-hand was Bly's shadow bag. It was a metaphor I knew well and had used many times to clients and people attending Shadow Work® weekends. Yet I found myself resisting it.


For one reason, frankly, I was a little bit tired of talking about the shadow bag. It felt a bit old.

For another, I had some difficulties with what I thought of as "the fine points." Whatever metaphor I used would be picked up, turned this way and that, looked at from every conceivable angle, and expounded upon in ways I couldn't predict. The metaphor I chose had to be usable right down to the details.

The bag was a near-perfect metaphor when I was explaining what in Shadow Work® we have traditionally called a "deflated" shadow. A deflated shadow is characterized by small, powerless, vulnerable behavior because the big, powerful, invulnerable part of the self has been tossed into the shadow bag. A deflated shadow is what in Practically Shameless I called a "Never Again strategy."

The bag was less handy in explaining an "inflated" shadow — what in Practically Shameless I called an "In-Your-Face strategy" — because one had to explain what had gone into the bag. Smallness? Powerlessness? It took some tricky language to explain why throwing powerlessness into the bag would be a problem.

I had another, more potent reason, however, for wanting to discard the shadow bag metaphor — a reason I didn't feel very proud of at the time. I wanted a metaphor of my own, a metaphor that felt like it was "mine." This was particularly true if I was going to be spending many, many hours developing it, handling it, playing with it, and examining it from every angle.

I remember the conversation in which I decided to begin working with the metaphor of a box. I was talking with Cliff, and we were seated in the diningroom of the house we were sharing at the time. The box was most likely his idea, though I don't remember for sure. He's very good at using images to explain what he's saying. After all, he's the one who adopted Bly's shadow bag metaphor all those years ago.


What I do remember is that using the metaphor of a box for the shadow immediately fit very well, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, I noticed that people who knew nothing about the shadow often referred to themselves as "in a box" or "trapped" in their behavior. I was also aware of numerous books, particularly for businesspeople, that referred to "the box," meaning a limiting perspective.

These books also talked about "thinking outside the box," which was supposedly the solution to the box. The authors rarely questioned, however, why people adopted a limiting perspective in the first place. I always wondered why, once they were thinking outside the box, people wouldn't tend to create another box just like the one they'd just left. I made a mental note to look into that.

One of the most compelling reasons for using the box metaphor was that it would help me transition into a discussion of the four archtypes. Four archetypes — four walls to a box — it was a natural! At least if I didn't focus too much on the box having a floor and a ceiling.


As I began working with the box metaphor, two other reasons surfaced. Back when I was using the shadow bag metaphor, I had never asked myself, What exactly is it that gets thrown into the bag? A behavior? A quality? An ability? How could I paint a picture of what happens when the quality, ability or behavior comes out of the bag and gets re-integrated into a person's life?

I had never asked myself that question because there had never been a need before, because I hadn't been writing a book before. Writing a book seemed to demand that I nail down the details.

The more I thought about it, and the more I developed word pictures for the shadow, and in particular the more I explained the shadow as strategies for loving the people who wounded us, the more vivid the box metaphor became for me. Inside the box was not a quality or an ability or a behavior but a younger me who wanted something she couldn't get. Shadow Work® could help her get what she wanted, and that would free her from the box. She could then grow up as she was meant to do, instead of staying trapped inside the box.


Eventually, yet another powerful reason surfaced for using the box metaphor. It captured very well my experience of getting "activated" or "triggered" by an event (what some people call "having their buttons pushed").

For me, getting triggered often feels as if an alarm clock is going off inside me. I'm not talking about a chic, electronic alarm with an LED display. I'm talking about an old-fashioned, wind-up alarm clock with tiny hammers vibrating furiously inside the twin bells on top. When I get triggered, the young me who wanted something she couldn't get is bouncing off the walls of a box inside my gut. For me, the alarm clock was a much more immediate and powerful metaphor than a shadow bag slung over my shoulder and thus outside my body.


I confess, I have often felt annoyed by self-help books that distill an extremely complex facet of human life into an overly simple metaphor. And that's precisely what I did in choosing the box metaphor. As I began working with it, the risk grew that some aspect of the box metaphor wouldn't work well, and I would have wasted my investment of time and energy.

There's no question in my mind, however, that if I hadn't used a metaphor of some kind — whether the box or the bag — my book would have joined the many other books I've read about the shadow which don't convey what it feels like when you're dealing with a shadow.

Part One: Storytelling

Part Three: You Are Not Alone

Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless: How Shadow Work Helped Me Find My Voice, My Path, and My Inner Gold. To read a synopsis, excerpts, and testimonials, or to see study guides for groups and individuals, visit Practically Shameless Press. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in December 2007. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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